A Short Disclaimer: I'm
not trying to discourage anyone from hiking in BC by the
precautions outlined below. I have had the occasional E-Mail from
someone I've managed to terrify. If your sensible, you can hike
quite safely, with or without small children. The precautions
below are mainly to emphasize that wild animals are to be treated
with respect. Use some common sense and you likely have nothing
to worry about. Chances are you won't encounter anything larger
than a squirrel on most hiking trails. Bears are the main danger,
and I have devoted most of this section to dealing with them. I
have done a fair bit of research on bear behaviour. I have also
had several encounters of my own with bears, especially when I
was working full time in the bush in my younger days. I had
several opportunities to observe the behaviour of bears at
uncomfortably close quarters, and I have a healthy respect for
them. I offer what information I have below, and I hope my advice
is as accurate as possible. You will no doubt read all sorts of
contradictory advice on how to deal with bears. There is a lot of
misinformation out there. Just remember that any wild animal can be
Bears are, statistically, the most dangerous wild
animals in Canada. Humans are not viewed as prey, and keeping
this in mind, can help you prevent most problems with encounters.
Bears can be unpredictable, but an understanding of Bear
behaviour can help you avoid encounters and predict their
behaviour 99% of the time. Bears can be found, even within a few
Kilometres of the city. Bear encounters are quite common,
considering the number of people in the woods, and there are
usually one or two fatalities or maulings a year, usually the
result of human stupidity. In fact, I can't recall a year when
there has not been at least one fatality in BC or Alberta due to
a bear. If you have ever seen a picture of a Bear mauling victim,
it is not a pretty sight. BC, with a bear population of over 100,000,
has the greatest concentration of bears in the world. They can be
especially dangerous in the Spring/early Summer, shortly after
coming out of hibernation, when they tend to be at lower
elevations in search of food. A bear coming out of hibernation is
hungry. If you hadn't eaten in 5 months, wouldn't you be? In
years of high snow pack, they can be found more frequently at the
lower elevations in search of berries. They can also be driven to
lower elevations in search of food during long hot dry spells,
and can be especially dangerous at these times. To put all this
in perspective however, you have a far greater chance of being
mauled by a stray dog, than you do a Bear. You also have to
realize that the vast majority of Bears are Black Bear, which are
far less dangerous than Grizzlies which are quite scarce,
especially in the Southern, more populated part of the Province.
Bears in the National Parks can be especially
dangerous, as they tend to be accustomed to humans, and consider
them a source of handouts, due to foolish tourists feeding them.
A Bear is not an animal you want to mess with. Unfortunately,
cartoons and children's programs such as Yogi Bear, Whinny the
Pooh, Paddington Bear and the US Forest Services Smokey Bear, have given this animal a cuddly image
and this has proved fatal to some. I have witnessed tourists
encouraging children to approach bear cubs in National parks and
feed or try to pet them. This is a good way to collect life
insurance on your kids. Nothing looks more cuddly than a bear
cub, and nothing is more dangerous than its mother. I can't
emphasize enough how dangerous some Bears can be if you don't
show them respect, I speak from experience of working in the bush.
(I came close to disaster with a Grizzly with cubs, 20 years ago, I
only got into my truck with a seconds to spare.) Contrast
all this to the evil image of the wolf, which is not generally
speaking, any danger to Humans.
Nearly all Bear attacks are due to straight
stupidity or ignorance. There are 2 or 3 things you can do to try
and avoid Bears. When hiking, make plenty of noise. Some outdoor
stores carry small bells to attach to your boots for this purpose.
Bears will generally avoid you and run away, if they encounter
you. Never store food close to where you are sleeping, such as in
a tent. Food is a magnet to a bear and they will attack you in
your tent to get at it, if necessary. When hiking overnight,
store food a good 20 meters away, or in a vehicle if you have one.
Burn empty cans (don't set the forest on fire, doing this, dig a
fire pit) to remove food traces and bury any scraps a good
distance away from your camp. Avoid sleeping in the same clothing
you may have worn while cooking. Bears have an acute sense of
smell and can detect food odours embedded in clothing. Never
approach a bear which has cubs. If you surprise a bear, back away
slowly. If you have a pack or any other objects on you, drop them
between yourself and the bear as you back away. This will very
likely distract it, allowing time for you get away. Better to
lose your knapsack, than your life. The last resort procedure for
survival, if a bear does attack you, and you have no hope whatever of getting away, is to roll up into a ball, protect your
head, and play dead. (This is only a last resort, though, and of extremely dubious value, although there are documented cases of this
working with Black Bear) Climbing a tree does not help, any bear
can do it better than you can. (Pepper spray has been shown to be
effective in warding off a bear, but you have to buy it in
sporting goods store and it can be difficult to find, since criminals were using it on people.) The most
sensitive areas of a Bears anatomy are its eyes & snout, so
if you find yourself in a hand-to-paw combat situation, these are
the body parts to go for. Having said all this, there are cases
when the bear might be viewing you as prey, and you have to use a
different strategy. I deal with this in the next section.
Most bears you may encounter, will be the Black
Bear variety which are normally timid and will generally avoid
people. Most attacks on people are, however, by Black Bears. This
is simply a statistical fact due to the fact that Black Bears are
the most common species, not because a Black bear is more
dangerous than any other type. The chances of serious injury or
death from a Black Bear attack, however, is much lower than that
of a Grizzly. There have been some cases of supposedly unprovoked
attacks on people by Black bears. Oddly enough, predatory
behaviour by a Black Bear nearly always occurs when a male Black
Bear, who is not accustomed to humans, is encountered. In
such a case a human may be viewed as prey by the bear, and an
attack by such a bear is often no fault of the human. Victims of
these type of attacks are usually eaten by the bear, in contrast
to the usual attack which just involves mauling. In such cases
the bear will usually remove the victims clothing in the same way
they will remove the hide from any other kill, before eating it.
A bear that is viewing you as prey will likely display common
predator behaviour, and it is important to recognize this if you
wish to survive. The main tip-off is silent stalking, or the bear
simply following you. The bear will not appear to be overly angry.
In these cases the best defense, is to display aggressive
behaviour towards the bear, by yelling at it, waving a stick at
it, throwing rocks at it, etc. You have to demonstrate dominance
over the bear. This may seem contradictory to what I have already
said, and unfortunately it is difficult to determine what a
particular bear's motivation is.
If you run into a Grizzly, you are likely in
big trouble, but they are not common, except in the far north.
They can be found in Banff and Jasper, the two main National
Parks as well.. Most bear attacks involve food or surprise
encounters. Random attacks such as the one that killed 2 people
at Liard Hotsprings in 1997, are rare. The Environment Ministry
receives about 8,000 Bear complaints a year and Conservation
officers are forced to destroy about 1,000 troublesome Bears a
year, even more in heat wave years like 1998 and 2009 where food is scarce.
Unfortunately, once a bear learns that humans are an easy source
of food, they become a permanent threat.
Here are a few "Bear Facts":
1) The most dangerous Bears are those with
cubs, those habituated to human food and those defending a fresh
2) A bear can run about as fast as a horse (in
other words, considerably faster than you can).
3) Bears have an acute sense of smell &
4) Bears are territorial and will defend their
5) All female Bears will defend their cubs,
even at risk to themselves. Black bears will nearly always shoo
their cubs up a tree before dealing with you.
6) Bears are good tree-climbers, Black bears
more so than Grizzlies, but a Grizzly is more liable to be able
to push a tree over.
7) Dogs tend to antagonize Bears, Hiking with
an unleashed dog can increase your chance of an attack.
8) Bears are an extremely strong animal. They
can trash a car or cabin in short order.
For more information check out
Get Bear Smart Society.
The following is the Provincial Government
information sheet on Bear safety:
FED BEAR IS A DEAD BEAR (This means they become troublesome & have to be
There are some simple
precautions you must take to prevent the food conditioning of bears and avoid
dangerous bear encounters.
Reduce or eliminate
odours that attract bears
Avoid strong smelling
foods and perfumed toiletries.
At the campground, store food in air-tight containers in your RV or car
Pack out all your
garbage. Store it with your food out of reach of bears. Do not bury
garbage or throw into pit toilets. Only paper and wood may be burned:
plastics, tinfoil, and food items do not burn completely, and the remains will
attract bears (besides creating an unsightly mess).
SOME BEAR FACTS
Bears are as fast as a
racehorse, on the flats, uphill or downhill
Bears are strong
Bears have good
eyesight, good hearing, and an acute sense of smell.
All black bears and
young grizzlies are agile tree climbers; mature grizzlies are poor climbers,
but they have a reach up to 4 metres.
If a bear is standing
up it is usually trying to identify you. Talk softly so it knows what you are.
Move away, keeping it in view. Do not make direct eye contact.
Identifying bears is
important if you are ever approached by one.
Black Bear (Ursus americanus Pallas)
Colour: Varies. Black, brown, cinnamon or blond, often with a white patch on the chest or at the throat.
Height: Approximately 90 cm at the shoulder.
Weight: 57 kg to >270 kg. Females are usually smaller than males.
Characteristics: straight face profile short, curved claws barely
noticeable shoulder hump
Habitat: Prefers forested areas with low-growing plants and
berry-producing shrubs (e.g. small forest openings, stream or lake edges, open
Grizzly Bear (Ursus arctos horribilis Ord)
Varies. Black (rare), brown or blond. Fur often white-tipped or "grizzled". Light-coloured patches may occur around neck, shoulders and on rear flanks.
Height: Slightly above 1 metre at shoulder; 1.8 to 2 m erect.
200 kg to >450 kg. Females are usually smaller than males.
dished or concave face long, curved claws prominent shoulder hump
Semi-open spaces preferred. High country in late summer and early fall; valley
bottoms late fall and spring.
IF YOU SEE A BEAR
If It Does Not
If spotted in the
distance, do not approach the bear. Make a wide detour or leave the area
immediately. If in an Provincial Park, report sighting to Park Staff
at the first opportunity.
If you are at close
range, do not approach the bear. Remain calm, keep it in
view. Avoid direct eye contact. Move away without running.
If the Bear
If the bear is
standing up, it is usually trying to identify you. Talk softly so it knows
what you are. If it is snapping its jaws, lowering its head, flattening its
ears, growling or making 'woofing' signs, it is displaying aggression.
Do not run unless you
are very close to a secure place. Move away, keeping it in view. Avoid
direct eye contact. Dropping your pack or an object may distract it to give
you more time. If it is a grizzly, consider climbing a tree.
If the Bear
Your response depends
on the species and whether the bear is being defensive or offensive. Bears
sometimes bluff their way out of a confrontation by charging then turning
away at the last moment. Generally, the response is to do nothing to
threaten or further arouse the bear. While fighting back usually increases
the intensity of an attack, it may cause the bear to leave. Each incident
is unique and the following are offered as guidelines only to deal with an
unpredictable animal and complex situation:
From Surprise (defensive)
Do nothing to
threaten or further arouse the bear.
Play dead. Assume
the 'cannonball position' with hands clasped behind neck and face buried
Do not move until
the bear leaves the area. Such attacks seldom last beyond a few minutes.
Black Bear Attacks
From Surprise (defensive)
Grizzly or Black
Bear Attacks Offensively (including stalking you or when you are
Black Bear Attacking For Your Food
In case you don't know what this is, it is a large cat
that resembles a female African lion, and can be just as dangerous if you
encounter one. They are quite common in
BC, especially on Vancouver Island, and in the Southern Interior
around Princeton. They even had one in the parking garage of the
Empress Hotel in Victoria a couple of years back. In August 98,
one was found wandering around Burnaby, a densely populated
Vancouver suburb. Probably on the lookout for a tasty toy poodle.
In the wild, they are rarely encountered by people, they tend to
be quite reclusive. I have hiked in BC for over 20 years and have
never seen one. Having said that, there has been an average of 6
cougar attacks a year in BC, resulting in 9 fatalities over the
last 10 years. Cougar attacks have been on the rise over the last few years,
especially on Vancouver Island, which has the highest population density of the
cats. Here are a few examples: In 1992, a boy was attacked & killed while
playing in a schoolyard. In 1997 a woman and her
son were attacked while on horseback near Princeton. The woman
was killed, trying to save her son. In mid April, 1999, a cougar
attacked an 8 year old girl in a campsite near Hope, 150 km from
Vancouver. A woman nearby, grabbed a tree branch and eventually
beat the cat off. The little girl lived but suffered severe
facial lacerations, eye damage and puncture wounds to the chest.
On New Years Day, 2001, a female cross country skier (alone) was
attacked and killed in Banff. In February 2001, a cyclist riding
along a highway on northern Vancouver Island was attacked. A
passing motorist stopped and managed to chase off the cat with
some difficulty. The cyclist was badly mauled, but survived.
In June 2002, an 8 year old girl from Reno, Nevada was grabbed from a campsite
on Vancouver Island by a large male cougar. The father & others managed to beat
the cougar off. The campers were part of a wilderness kayaking tour group.
The girl was lucky, the cat had her by the neck, and its a miracle she survived.
She was able to go home after a couple of days in the hospital. The owner of a
nearby resort, hunted down the cougar & shot it. When the body was examined, it
was determined the cat had probably not eaten in several days. In August
2002, a hiker on Vancouver island killed a large male cougar that attacked him
with his pocketknife. These incidents illustrate the pattern of Cougar attacks. A
Cougar will usually go for the weakest, which means a young
child, or solitary individuals. If you do encounter a Cougar,
never turn your back and run. Try to look as large and as
threatening as possible and put yourself between it and any small
children with you. If you are wearing a coat, open it up wide and
make yourself appear as large as possible. Do not make direct eye
contact, as most Cougars see that as a threat. If possible pick
up a large stick. Shout and wave your arms, bang the stick on the
ground, etc., if the Cougar starts to approach you. If the cat
still attacks you, there is little you can do, except pray. Mountain Lions prefer to attack from above and will usually go for
the throat or the back of neck.
Another large cat, rarer than Cougars, but the same
This animal (pronounced ky-oh-tea) resembles a cross between a Wolf & a
German Shepard, but is actually a separate species. They can, however,
cross-breed with large dogs and have done so on occasion. These animals are
becoming highly urbanized in the Vancouver Area and are common in Parks,
especially in Burnaby, New Westminster & Surrey. They are not a danger to
humans, although small children can be at risk, especially since some
irresponsible people have been feeding these predators and many of them now
associate humans with food. They are mainly a danger to small dogs & cats,
especially cats. Anyone in Vancouver who lets their cat out out night will not
likely have it for long. I found a cat paw in my own driveway last year. You can
often hear these animals baying at the moon.
If hiking in the dry southern interior, carry a
snakebite kit. Rattlesnakes are common in some areas of the
Okanagan and Thompson regions.
I have never seen one, but apparently they exist in the
desert area around Ossoyoos.
Wolves are common in BC, especially in
the north. I have yet to hear of an attack on people, and this
animal is much maligned. They perform a very necessary function
in keeping the deer population at a healthy level. They live and
hunt in packs. BC wolves have lately been relocated into
Yellowstone National Park in the US to try and re-establish the
decimated population there, much to the chagrin of the local
ranchers. Some people, especially in the north, have
domesticated, or cross bred them with dogs as pets.
This is supposed to be the most vicious
animal in Canada, but it must be very reclusive. I have never
heard of anyone coming up against one. This website describes an
encounter with one:
If you are really paranoid, I have heard that
pepper spray is effective against Bears, I don't know if it would
stop a Cougar, but I guess as a last resort, it would be worth a
The "Vancouver Island Abound" website
also has a section on Bear & Cougar safety at
Bear, Cougar Encounter Precautions.
The MOST Dangerous Animal in British
Columbia: My wife's cat, and I have the scars to prove